David Cameron’s India challenge

David Cameron, 11 November 2013 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption David Cameron is 'looking like a slightly desperate suitor in Indian eyes'

Earlier this year, commuters in Delhi and other Indian cities were being offered attractive scenes of British life on street-side hoardings, buses and taxis - part of a global UK campaign to promote "Great Britain".

The ads were slickly produced, but they looked oddly incongruous against the fierce contrasts of modern India - as if those behind this "Great" campaign weren't sure whom they were talking to here, or about what.

Something similar has been going wrong in the UK's relations with India.

Spearheaded by a clearly enthusiastic David Cameron, the package looks good on the surface.

But from India's point of view, it doesn't do as advertised when you open it - largely because of a perception the UK is closing its doors to outsiders.

A perception that is wrong, insist British diplomats.

But as Mr Cameron responds to domestic pressures to cut immigration, he is facing increasing blowback abroad.

And in a striking reversal of roles, it's left him looking like a slightly desperate suitor in Indian eyes, trying to persuade Britain's old colony to give him another chance.

His third visit since taking office is proof, say UK officials, of his long-term commitment to India.

But the papers here have pointedly noted their prime minister hasn't been to see him in the UK once.

And privately, Indian officials are surprised Mr Cameron is back again - especially as the government may be on its last legs before elections in a few months time.

"There will be no heavy-duty stuff on the agenda," said one senior official.

"But we see the visit as a gesture of friendship to smooth over the bitterness that has crept in."

This bad flavour is almost all to do with immigration.

The number of Indian students going to the UK has tumbled by a quarter in the last year, with Britain's "stifling visa regime" getting the blame.

"Good education has always been a British selling point," rues an Indian businessman whose son failed to get a UK visa. "Now we have to go elsewhere."

UK officials say such stories are un-representative - and that 80% of Indian students who apply for visas get them.

"The door is open to the best and brightest," says a senior diplomat, but admits, "there are misperceptions about our policies".

But even when the UK recently abandoned its most controversial idea of demanding a £3,000 deposit or bond from Indians seeking a visa it got little credit.

Perceptions won't shift, says Adrian Mutton of Delhi-based consultancy Sannam S4, unless Britain changes its immigration rhetoric.

Its slogan - "we welcome the brightest and the best" - he argues, excludes many otherwise good students who "are still honest visa applicants, willing to invest tens of thousands into the UK via fees and living costs".

Meanwhile, other Western countries with skills gaps are stepping up efforts to attract Indian students.

There are knock-on effects. While Indian companies have bought up large tracts of British industry, when it comes to winning contracts here, UK companies often lose out.

Yet, India still has deeper ties with Britain than with any other country outside South Asia. India wants to like the UK. But it wants to see more than the prime minister liking India back.